Amphibious Trilogies

Off to Arkhangelsk

For over a year and a half weeks try to find out more about the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and see what travels into and through it. Despite fairly frequent coverage in national and international media – whether in terms of trade, security or environmental matters – it’s turned out to be less straightforward a ‘passage’ then we had hoped.

Tomorrow Amanda and I are off to Arkhangelsk in Russia, to be joined by Brynyar on the 21st of the month. This is one of our ways to experience and investigate artistically what an arctic passage may entail.

As a journey, as an experience, both physical and psychological. A conceptual and allegorical trope. We will visit this historical and strategic Arctic city to try to understand its past and future. It runs largely along one side of the vast Dvina river in the midst of its emerging delta leading into the White Sea. Frozen half the year, we will see flowing passage inland and to the waters of the Arctic.

Amanda and Brynyar want to take part in the Northern (Arctic) Federal University (NArFU) Arctic Floating University Expedition 2019. This year this international research platform makes the voyage from Archangelsk to Svalbard and back. It’ll take perhaps 25 days, with a mix of mostly scientists, students and researchers aboard the Professor Molchanov. This is an steel hulled, ice protected vessel that will accommodate 60 travellers and a crew of 20. It has lab and seminar facilities. The programme has run for five years and has hosted a diversity of applied sciences, less cultural or artistic connections such as we hope to forge.

Such voyages takes some organising and we’ve only learned recently that this year’s route has been changed. Amanda is a little disappointed. She and Brynyar will not see or land on the mix of islands in Russia, from the White Sea into the open Arctic waters. Visiting Svalbard and will be a novelty all the same, as it’s a large archipelago, a slight work island and passage will meet in diverge again.

We visited Longyearbyen in the depths of winter in January of this year. The vast mountains around the town and across the fiord with mostly invisible, occasionally looming shadows. On this excursion they will be lit by the midnight sun, visible in summer skies. And the floating university will dock there, after Barentsberg and its research centre, we presume, shifting understandings of sea, land and sovereignty in this remote but now globally known destination.

The abandoned mining town of Pyramiden is on the itinerary too. So too is the still operating coal mine of Barentsberg and it’s small wooden church and larger swimming pool, a human-made all year pond. A hotel now open for tourists, less the cold war outpost, more a strategic Arctic foothold in 21st-century climate times. Narratives and trajectories of the future untold. A visit to the international scientific research station at Ny Ålesund. Experiences, exposures, expressions form an artistic project embedded as it were in the needed scientistic discourses and data of the changing Arctic.

What of this artistry and its passages? The passage an allegorical device, a narrative accounting tool, immaterial artistic messages for moving actions for climate emergencies. The travellers for Amphibious Trilogies have a set of themes, problematics, curiously framed concepts and questions, an a number of tasks to try to perform. These digital texts will give details of some of those engagements, on the water, through time and with many new companions, most technical experts, and when landing on the very different venues of the archipelago. Passage and islands connecting, a series of long spaces of open seas and short landfalls.

We wait to see what will play out. How we can use the choreographic in the world, in contexts that are transversed. to accentuate the workings and potential roles of movement, in an artistic voice, on board with experts measuring, probing and observing the conditions and changing contexts of the Arctic.

Our amphibious notions will be on the move. Our persona Octopa will be on a boat, land in distant venues, slither back to the continental scale. Experimentally launched we will be in a few days.

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Octopus upstairs

I can’t resist it. There’s an upstairs section, darker and about life inside boats, technologies, survival kits and lighthouses along the coast.

Fresh and salt water meet for me, the provisions of passage, the lights to guide their safety.

There is a lovely touch screen display that Amanda is trying out. I learned downstairs that she has a long history in electronic arts and that Andrew has worked in electronic in research interaction and since before Web.

I cannot resist pulling myself up to the surface as the room clears and touching the screen and seeing lighthouse dimensions and positions and their light. I am at sea and on land, and suspended a story above the earth, transfixed by my amphibiousness.

it is time to go. Only that I could slip through this representational porthole.

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Lore, passage, change

Founded in 1837, the Arkhangelsk Regional Lore Museum houses a comprehensive collection of historical material and exhibits. The main brochure list 265 000 exhibits and presents the main thematics of the venue, less though its 20th century content. A video (in Russian) rich in detail provides a detailed journey through the institution, it history and content.

Located within the oldest building in the city, the Merchant Yards, displays and pieces are gathered in and across numerous galleries. These cover early settlement, living and trade, with focus on the 16th and 17th centuries. With a strong urban and maritime theme, present too are religious works from monasteries and churches, including vestments, icons and manuscripts that shine brightly in the illuminated halls on this bright sunny summer’s day.

Taking photographs is itself an amphibious experience, with reflections of elements overlaid on others, wonderful models of settlements with ships flying above their representations of land.

Ships sit in window alcoves, the carefully restored building is filled with embroidered religious gowns and painstakingly crafted panoramas of trade in movement of people and goods across the sea, delta and islands, river and passages, lakes and ponds.

The more one dwells in these multitudinous halls and displays, the more their vast shared passages that link them works as parallels between the different ‘islands’ of representations.

This is a large museum that requires a lot of movement: bodily, informationally, mediationally and mentally. The overall effect is a wide ranging yet connected assertion that this is a city that has been central to the northern passage of trade, ideas, people, goods and administrative strategy over centuries.

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Giddying up

There’s a summer amusement fair in town. I’ve seen the ferris wheel marked on a painted wall beside the cathedral. It hot today and people seem to be having a rest, or a long lunch or just swatting the odd midge.

I decide to leave the cool river waters and make my way on land. I go past that perpetually suspended fellow maritime creature on the promenade, ever thankful that movement is mine.

Today I need to take myself in hold. To giddy myself up as if a fairground donkey. Reminds me of that etching I saw last summer when i joined the tour of the museum, former east Germans it seemed. I too need to be more active to get to know the city.

And so today will pretend I am dressed up in a summer tank top and walk purposively across the street. I have learned that few people notice me when i do this, most likely thinking I am a small dog. And by the time they blink twice I have gone. Amphibiousness also on land as last summer I needed to slither into a drain here all too hurriedly when that bull dog slobbered all over me, wet but well just disgusting.

Up the street and then I turn the corner and cannot believe my eyes. There is a boat, rocking out of water and the gleeful screams of children.

It reminds me of last year’s sneaky visit to the Regional Lore Museum: there I found one of many ships out of water in its magnificent displays, learning fast as I must about this passage of goods and time and seasons if I am to survive.

I had to smile, and yes I do, when then I started to see boats out of water everywhere, symbolically speaking set in windows, beside the river, that passage to the sea, framed against the river, on the river, in the water, like me. The one from the Northern Maritime Museum made me want to break through the glass into the light and warm wet.

But that would have attracted too much attention and interrupted my learning cycles as I to call them, suckering up so much information in my several brains.

Be calm. My bodily and mental exercises are to move between worlds and movements. I shiver at the thought of being trapped in steel or stone on the river banks, like the monument to the convoys of the Second World War. A ship that cannot sail, a vessel out of water, a moving marvel of transportation frozen for the public, history made of steel. Ship seeming to ride a concrete sea, the sand, the water and saturated sky behind it.

I have found my home, tentacles tingling on dry land. Oh what would the winter version of this be? When i have to fight for a breathing hole through the ice and elongate myself to the point of snapping, exhaustedly shooting across the same street into the hotel lobby and up the stairs to the aquarium in the bar, slipping into the corner just behind the velvet curtain, beside the ceaseless tv. Ah, rest.

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Phantasma Arktika

Today’s the day Amanda and Brynjår will meet many of the other travellers for the first time on their journey north. I tag along to see them gather outside the university where mini-buses wait to take them to their ship. I’m allowed to see what lies ahead, and to perhaps see their berths, if not the voyage itself. I feel not so amphibious at this moment, but that is about to change.

The conveners of the trip have been very helpful in welcoming my colleagues and to mentioning items and directions concerning our interest in the Northern Sea Route as a passage. As it turn out, the recently released programme of lectures on board lists one on the NSR! It’s by a German researcher, we are told. Relief, it seems as though a part of the project might connect, especially as our interests differ somewhat in scale and expression to the other travellers who are mostly scientists.

We climb aboard, rather eagerly and sit in the heated interior of the bus on this gloriously sunny day. There we meet Dr Barbara Schennerlein. From Dresden and a fluent Russian speaker, she has wide ranging experience these northern islands, waters, routes and passages. She is a member of the German Polar Society and an historian. It’s encouraging to find someone who has detailed knowledge of the history of the region and also the scope of the NSR, itself not a s new as one might imagine in 21st century times, but a major project of the emerging Soviet state.

Later Barbara provides us with her co-edited and curated book Phantasma Arktika which in the image below points to its key sites of study and especially photography. On board ship Barbara gives a lecture on the NSR, highlighting its cultural historical aspects, located on the water, one the move and inside the changing patterns of travel, trade and geo-politics.

I’m thankful to her for remembering to send this booklet and its images of ‘Photography from the Northern End of the word’ as its cover announces. Inside, and embedded in the German text that faces one in English I see the image I could only have dreamt to see in this project. There stands a heroic moustached, Soviet man at the wheel of a ship, flag flying behind him and his seaman’s cap.

In the foreground of this poster by el Lissitzky is a globe, a map, with the trace of ruddy orange the path of the NSR. I am transposed by this constructivist iconography to an earlier time, and propelled into the movement of the present with the projection of today’s route and tonnage, and President Putin’s demands for strategic and commercial success.

In my mind, I see the globe-like interface of our project, with a world above and below the waterline as horizon. Then I suddenly see time behind the wheel in the poster, a wheel of history and representation, here transposed to time behind our interface, an iconographic glimmer of the new route, a future brochure beyond the often rather poorly images maps and banners that do not move the mind as this one does, on land. The NSR has long been a motif and a trope of anticipatory utopian vision, and yet it has come to life via brutally pragmatic navigation of the vast, resource rich Arctic. Very real, wholly phantasmagorical.

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The Northern Sea Route #19

Day 19 on Prof. Molchanov
Wednesday 10 July 2019

Slept until lunch. Went up to the laboratory with Amanda and Natalia. Worked on the map and the route of the expedition. Got some new ideas to follow the geopolitical, economic, social, cultural, artistic and ecological routes of the boat in addition to the boats planned and actual route. Then we went down in the bar and listened to all the presentations.  After the presentations I went back up in the lab and drew Barentsburg from a photo. I also showed my drawing of the bridge to Igor from the crew. He said it was nice and then he photographed it 😉 I had another nap before dinner. After dinner Amanda and I went up in the lab to sign a card for Daniel. We wrote: you don´t have an English accent at all!!) I hope he will find it funny and laugh. Tomorrow we will arrive in Arkhangelsk. I think I will start packing now.

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Laboratory #18

Day 18 on Prof. Molchanov
Tuesday 9 July 2019

Got up late. Skipped breakfast and went straight to lunch. Went back to bed. Slept another four hours. Was awakened by Alexander in order to sign paper for toll at the bar. There I met Amanda for coffee and we decided to go to the lab and work a bit. Was interrupted by the Koreans and the Swiss who needed the lab to take samples. I drew them. Afterwards we had a chat with Natalia about the eastern sea route and the trip to Svalbard. Went up on deck to take down the SD card from the Game Camera. 10 minutes of tai chi. Had dinner. Had a nap. There was a second birthday party. Went to bed around 4. Nite.

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Lecture on NSR

Day 18 on the Arctic Floating University
Tuesday 9 July 2019

I am so privileged to share my room with Barbara Schennerlein, an historian dedicated to uncover the early pioneers of the otherwise unknown Arctic regions. Her camera is her main tool. Her mind is always working. She starts her lecture like this.

Barbara has accompanied the Russian government program. Beginning in 2012, it was a large-scale cleaning of abandoned polar stations. The intention was to glean and capture artefacts of polar research and the traces of human activities therein, before they were erased. Collaborating with Antje Kakuschke, this work resulted in a photographic exhibition “Phantasma Arktika”. Her intention on this expedition is to document and expand her knowledge of the Northern Sea Route administration, historically, and a part of the North East Passage, from the Arctic to Asia.

Many explores have failed, again and again. The knowledge of failure is essential for future explorations. Conditions of The Arctic are not well suited to people. They often become land and ice bounded. Many have lost their lives. Thus Baraba’s first lecture poses an alternative, The Exploration  Of The Arctic From The Air, leading up to the Arctic journey of the “Graf Zeppelin” in 1931. Here, the burden of of life in camps, sledges and boats are eradicated. Likewise, an airship does not intrude on Arctic landscapes. That is, if an airship does not blow up and/or crashes into the landscape.

In 1926 the airship Norge, Amundsen-Ellsworth Transpolar Flight failed. Shortly after in 1928 was the Airship Italy, a disaster.

The Graf Zeppelin Arctic expedition carried a team of scientists from Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Sweden on an exploration of the Arctic, making meteorological observations, measuring variations in the earth’s magnetic field in the latitudes near the North Pole. They also made a photographic survey of unmapped regions using a panoramic camera that automatically took several pictures per minute.  The journey was the first possibility to really explore the Arctic regions from the air, says Barbara. I think; seabirds do it, satellite imaginary does it too.

If I remember rightly, Barbara (her pace is rapid) has told us about Henrich von Stephan, a German statesman. Born in Stolp, Pomerania in 1831, he became an Postmaster General. He was an advocate of the Universal Postal System. But that’s not all. He envisaged a universal postal system that could fly in the sky, like Zeppelins (not to be mentioned is Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin). 

Svalbard is a hub for international scientific research on The Arctic. All countries have one or more agendas. Ny Ålesund is one of these. It hosts the airship mast, built in 1926 during Amundsen-Ellsworth north pole expedition with the airship Norge, serving also the “Graf Zeppelin” in 1931.

A disappointment for me is when we were on Ny Ålesund. No time to take to see the airship mast some metres away from the landing site. If only I were on the ball I might had registered my interest of this mast. I thought it as a given thing. Concerning Barabra, I think she had similar thoughts. The dilemma, a curling curve, is about encountering versus pre-programmed activities. But also is an issue of communication, whether scientific or artistic research, between the organisers and other participants.

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Tai chi before the storm

Day 17 of the Arctic Floating University Expedition
8 July 2019

We are somewhere on the last leg of the Barents sea. Brynjar suggests that we should take the opportunity to do Tai chi together before we enter the White Sea. A storm is brewing. We have to hurry up.

Brynjar is wearing a GoPro camera on his chest, just as we have done several times during Amphibious Trilogies in varying conditions and terrains. This is not a performance, per say. Rather, it enables us to capture the mood and motion of the surroundings from a moving body perspective, all be it by a technical apparatus. The top video still shows the horizon as we are used to see it. The rest is conditioned by the motion of the boat as it meets the waves and wind. The ship is rocking, to and fro. We strive for a balancing point in these conditions.

We struggle to find a balance in the every changing conditions.

My fingers feel frozen. I have loaned a professional sailing jacket, too big for me. While I am so glad for this jacket, a wind factor comes in. The deck shifts from port to starboard.

Here am I, close to the end of the five minute Tai chi session. The wind comes strongly in and the waves get bigger. The deck shifts from starboard to port. I follow Brynjar’s lead. I am able to stand upraised as the storm comes nearer. The deck shifts from port to starboard. The session is over. Still on the deck we talked about how seabirds have hitchhiked, taking advantage of air currents produced as the ship shifts from starboard to port. Good speed, anticipating that there is something to eat from the dregs casted out from the vessel. And these seabirds, we both have been affected and influenced by them in our moves.

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Getting somewhere #17

Day 17 on Prof. Molchanov
Monday 8 July 2019

Got up. Ate breakfast. Went back to bed. Skipped both lectures. Went on the roof. Did tai chi with Amanda. Ate lunch. Had a nap. Went on the bridge and drew the view from up there. Happy with the result. Looked for Amanda to show it to her. Couldn´t find her anywhere. Had another nap. At 4 PM there was the initiation for having crossed the polar circle. I skipped it. Instead I was working with Amanda in the laboratory.  We interview Natalia about how the trip is organized. She explained us how the trip is financed. I think we might be getting somewhere. At night: Birthday party. Karaoke. A lot to drink. People letting go on the dance floor.

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